“Who is Jesus to the Jews?”
A filmographer went around Israel with a video camera and asked this question, posting a video with a montage of the results on The Endless Love of Jesus Ministries’ YouTube page. It turns out that Jews have varied conceptions of who Jesus was. One respondent said, “He was a Jew who went to another religion.” Another was glib, declaring Jesus was “A figure for people who cannot think on their own.”
But many display indifference, answering like this: “He is part of Christianity, he isn’t connected to us at all.”
It’s no surprise, really. Jesus is the central figure to Christianity, but Jewish Scriptures do not include the New Testament that chronicles His life. Even more than that, Jews do not believe He was the Messiah: a figure whom the Old Testament promises will bring salvation, peace and restoration to the world.
And this is the fulcrum that everything else turns on, because if you do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that His death on a cross made salvation possible for all of humankind, why would he be important to you?
So the filmographer also asks another question, about why Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Responses about this also differ, but they have a surprisingly simple theme: Jesus wasn’t what the Jews expected a Messiah to be.
Through long centuries of religious tradition, the Jewish people have crafted a detailed profile for the Messiah. They believe that he will be the savior and liberator of the Jewish people, whose rule will inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity for Jews. These beliefs are deeply ingrained in Jewish faith.
The responses of folks in the video echo these kinds of expectations. Ruth, sitting at what looks like a streetside cafe in Jerusalem, observes, “We have a different picture of what the Messiah is. The Messiah is something that will happen in the future and it’s going to fix the world, the world will be as it is supposed to be when the Messiah comes. And that hasn’t happened yet, so, it’s pretty simple.”
“So why don’t Jews believe that Jesus was the Messiah?” the filmmaker asks Eran, from the Israeli city of Naharia. Eran’s answer is confident, “Because the redemption has not arrived… Judaism says that we still need to fulfill the commandments because no one here lives in total joy. So it is clear the redemption hasn’t come yet.”
It sounds idealistic, I know. But if we suspend our Christian skepticism for a moment and read Isaiah 51-62, it’s easy to see where Jews get their ambitious Messianic beliefs. The Old Testament promises that Jews cling to are lavish enough to justify Ruth and Eran’s conviction.
For example, Isaiah 51:11 says, “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Similarly, Isaiah 52:10 promises, “The Lord has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”
Read a verse, a chapter, like this—the Old Testament is littered with them—and then imagine the complete incongruity between these promises and the person of Jesus. He was a man who claimed to be God, but He never touched a sword and He died shamefully with the anger of Romans and Jews heaped on Him. Peace, which is a consistent Old Testament promise and one of the crucial traits of the Messiah to Jews, was nowhere to be seen. In fact, Jesus seemed to provoke bedlam and disagreement.
Christians have read the Old Testament a bit differently. We emphasize verses like Isaiah 53: 4, “we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” We love the image of a dusty Savior in Isaiah 53:2, with “no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him.” We cherish our belief that we have a Savior who suffered with us and for us, someone who came humbly and died more humbly still.
But we need to understand that, for Jews, the circumstances of Jesus’ life and death emphasize that He was not the promised Messiah. They are not being illogical or stubborn. They are simply reading their holy text carefully, as they’ve done for centuries, and Jesus’ life and message don’t square with what they see.
Read a verse, a chapter, like this – the Old Testament is littered with them – and then imagine the complete incongruity between these promises and the person of Jesus.
Christians struggle with this because, according to our theology, belief in Jesus is essential to salvation. It’s worthwhile to note that, on the subject of Jewish salvation, 21 Members of Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations agreed that “Jews are in an eternal covenant with God,” and thus have access to salvation no matter what.
In a similar vein, Eugene Fisher, Associate Director of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “God chose the Jews to be God’s people. We should respect God’s choice and try to figure it out.” Whatever else we may believe, God has not abandoned the Jews. And, in the meantime, we’re all doing our best to navigate the world according to our expectations. We will all, always, sometimes be right and sometimes be wrong.
Let’s not forget that Jews and Christians share a fundamental belief: that God exists and that He is at work in the world, operating in and through our expectations to accomplish His plan.